Faith-Based Education and Social Responsibility in Spain and Latin America

By: Grace Koehl (NHS'19)

January 29, 2020

Entreculturas is a Spanish Jesuit nonprofit focused on education and social justice. It is part of the Fe y Alegría International Federation and partners with other Jesuit social justice organizations, such as the Jesuit Refugee Service. Entreculturas believes in education as a tool for social justice, and it acts domestically and internationally to achieve the mission of quality education for all. The education work looks different in Spain and in the Global South in order to meet local needs, and Entreculturas engages a wide variety of people with a variety of programs all focused on social justice and education.

Grace Koehl with Entreculturas Sign

Entreculturas’ Role in Global Jesuit Nonprofit Work

Father Daniel Villanueva, S.J., founded Entreculturas in 1985 to support Fe y Alegría, an international education nonprofit. As a Jesuit organization, Entreculturas has a goal of promoting social justice through education. Father José María Velaz, S.J., founded Fe y Alegría in 1955 to bring educational services to those living in extreme poverty. Fe y Alegría now has a network of schools, radio education programs, and other educational efforts that reach 21 countries, including new locations in Africa, such as Chad.

Gabriel Vélez, the Fe y Alegría International Federation coordinator at Entreculturas
Gabriel Vélez, the Fe y Alegría International Federation coordinator at Entreculturas

Fe y Alegría is organized by chapters at the national level. Entreculturas began as the Fe y Alegría Spain chapter but changed its name. As the Spanish chapter of Fe y Alegría, Entreculturas participates in the Fe y Alegría International Federation. The International Federation is the network that connects the national chapters to collaborate and share resources. Gabriel Vélez, the Fe y Alegría International Federation coordinator at Entreculturas, stated that the benefit of participating in the International Federation is the opportunity to work on a larger scale:

It creates opportunities for awareness education on an international scale. It’s not the same thing to be an organization that works in one community or one country as it is to be an international organization that’s in the whole region and has in-depth knowledge about the education systems in each area.

In addition to active participation in the International Federation, Entreculturas has strong collaborative relationships with many Fe y Alegría national chapters, providing resources and technical assistance.

Map of the world with countries where Entreculturas was actively working in 2018

Map of the world with countries highlighted in red where Entreculturas was actively working in 2018. The countries include Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Spain, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Togo, Chad, Sudan, Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar, Nepal, Cambodia, and Philippines.

Map Highlighting the Fe y Alegría Member States

Map of the world with countries that are part of the Fe y Alegría International Federation highlighted in red. The countries include Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Spain, Italy, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Madagascar.

¡Gracias por correr por La Luz de las Niñas!. Footage from Entreculturas' annual charity run, Corre Por Una Causa, that is carried out in 11 locations across Spain

Although Entreculturas is part of Fe y Alegría, it focuses on different work than other chapters. Chapters in Latin America and Africa are primarily focused on increasing access to and improving quality of schooling. However, because education is generally well-developed in Spain, the core of Entreculturas’ work is supporting the efforts of Fe y Alegría chapters in the Global South.This support is both financial and technical in nature.

Additionally, Entreculturas focuses on social justice education and awareness for children and adults within Spain. The organization offers many different educational and volunteering opportunities for youth with a focus on civic engagement and development of global citizens. Awareness campaigns surrounding specific social justice issues are frequently executed nationally and by individual regional chapters.

Chart of the number of staff, volunteers and collaborators involved with Entreculturas in 2018

Staff, Volunteers, and Collaborators chart: This bar chart shows how many staff, domestic volunteers, collaborators, and VOLPA volunteers engaged with Entreculturas in 2018. With 471 people, collaborators had the most representatives. There were also 196 domestic volunteers and 31 VOLPA volunteers. Entreculturas had 89 staff members.

Although Entreculturas was founded to support Fe y Alegría, it now collaborates with many other global organizations, all of which are Jesuit. Entreculturas’ other main partner is the Jesuit Refugee Service. They also work with additional Jesuit organizations focused on migration, the environment, and other social justice issues.

Refuge School | World Refugee Day. Entreculturas video raising awareness for World Refugee Day.

Jesuit Identity in a Secular State

Entreculturas, and Fe y Alegría at large, are Jesuit nonprofits. Jesuit identity and values are at the core of Entreculturas’ mission.

School children pose with a member of Entreculturas

Providing quality education, caring for the marginalized, focusing on compassion and solidarity, and valuing reflection are all Jesuit concepts that are central to Entreculturas' work.

Staff members affirm that Entreculturas is proud of its Jesuit affiliation. However, its home country of Spain is increasingly secular, which poses some challenges for the organization.

Many Entreculturas staff members referenced the balancing act between remaining open to people of all backgrounds and maintaining a strong Jesuit identity. This theme rang true across many different departments, including international volunteering, formal education, and informal education. Yénifer López, director of formal education, clarified that the Jesuit identity can also be an advantage in Entreculturas’ relationships with different schools. She explained that, “In the education sector, Jesuit education is highly valued.” The Jesuits are very well-known for their quality education in Spain; Entreculturas’ affiliation gives them a certain credibility.

Entreculturas’ Jesuit identity also poses some challenges to the organization when it comes to relationships with prospective financial supporters. Some organizations have policies of only partnering with secular organizations. Of course, there are ways to overcome this difference. Isabel Gómez del Campo, a volunteer who works in institutional relations, says that she simply explains the goals of the project, such as paying teachers or building schools, and asks if the organization is inclined to support that effort. She explained that the challenge of working with a secular funder can oftentimes be overcome by focusing on the project’s goals and not the differences between the organizations.

Of course, the Jesuit identity at Entreculturas has its benefits. Many staff members and volunteers cite the Jesuit affiliation as a main reason for joining Entreculturas, as well as a key motivation for continuing their work. In fact, the distinction as a Jesuit organization is the primary way that international volunteers come to choose an experience with Entreculturas. Overall, Jesuit affiliation is a central component of Entreculturas’ work, and the organization has found satisfactory ways to balance pride for its beliefs with openness to others.

International Volunteering

International volunteering programming makes up a large part of Entreculturas’ work. A variety of programs are available for staff, volunteers, and the common public in Spain. These programs have different locations, durations, engagement styles, and goals. However, the activities all serve a common goal, which is Entreculturas’ focus on creating change agents; a main component of all international volunteer programming is to stir change in the volunteer that will make a lasting impact on how they carry out their lives long after they return from their program.

Experiencia Sur is one of Entreculturas’ most popular programs. This program is an opportunity for staff and volunteers to spend approximately one month abroad in a country affected by Entreculturas’ work. During this time, participants carry out volunteer projects while learning about the communities and organizations receiving support from Entreculturas in the Global South. Entreculturas also provides pre-and post-trip support for participants; volunteers engage in two one-day trainings focused on motivations, attitudes, and logistics before the trip and regroup after the experience to debrief.

Map highlighting the countries where Entreculturas staff participated in Experiencia Sur in 2018

Map of the world with countries highlighted in red where Entreculturas staff partook in Experiencia Sur volunteering in 2018. The countries include Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, and Chad.

Participants of any faith may partake in Experiencia Sur. While it is not a Catholic pastoral program, trainings and volunteer activities focus on spirituality in a broader sense. A concerted effort is made to keep these discussions open to all beliefs; therefore, universal topics, such as life and energy, are the main focus. However, Jesuit-specific guidance is available for those who are interested.

About 90 percent of Entreculturas’ projects are linked to education. However, Entreculturas maintains that the project is not the true task at hand. Rather, the goal is to stir an emotional response in the participant by allowing them to become familiar with the end result of Entreculturas’ work. Referring to the impact of Experiencia Sur volunteer projects, Director of Short-Term International Volunteering Ana Vazquez Ponzone stated that “You can’t change a situation in one month.” The goal of the program is to help the participant visualize both the populations that Entreculturas works with and the outcome of their efforts.

Experiencia Sur 2017. Previous Experiencia Sur volunteers discuss how the program impacted them

Then, the hope is that participants will use these experiences to improve the work that they do upon returning to Entreculturas as a staff member or a volunteer. Entreculturas believes that the participants resume work with more motivation after their experience abroad.

Venn Diagram showing where facts and requisites about Experiencia Sur and VOLPA overlap

Venn diagram shows similarities and differences between the Experiencia Sur and VOLPA programs. Experiencia Sur is for Entreculturas volunteers and staff and lasts approximately one month. In contrast, VOLPA is open to any young person and lasts one to two years. The commonalities are that both programs are mainly focused on education projects, that they are for people of any faith, and that they take place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The other key international volunteer program at Entreculturas is the Pedro Arrupe Volunteers, referred to in Spanish as VOLPA and named for a former superior general of the Society of Jesus. VOLPA is a longer duration international volunteer opportunity designed primarily for young people. To date, roughly 1,000 people have participated in VOLPA. The majority of participants are between ages 25-35, and more women than men participate.

Map highlighting the countries with active VOLPA volunteers in 2018

Map of the world with countries highlighted in red where VOLPA volunteers worked in 2018. The countries include Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Kenya.

Like Experiencia Sur, volunteers undergo a pre-and post-experience accompaniment. However, the training is much longer and more intense for VOLPA. At least nine months of preparation is spent working with Entreculturas staff on motivations, interpersonal skills, and relevant social justice themes. The relationship formed between the staff member and the volunteer is essential, as the staff provides remote support to the volunteer during the abroad experience as well as during post-volunteering reflection.

Encuentro Papa Francisco con Fe y Alegria. Pope Francis speaks about Fe y Alegría

Then, the volunteer spends one to two years in the Global South working for one of Entreculturas’ partner organizations, such as Fe y Alegría and the Jesuit Refugee Service. During this time, the two main goals are to technically support the organization through volunteer work and to experience personal growth. The vast majority of volunteers engage in education work, but some work in migration and social services. Entreculturas believes that one of the most important parts of the in-country VOLPA experience is the opportunity to work alongside and make friends with people who are marginalized or living in poverty. The hope is that, through this experience, volunteers will be deeply affected and become what the organization calls “change agents.” Ana Moreno, director of international volunteering, stated that being a change agent comes in two parts for international volunteers: while abroad and after returning to Spain. In another country, she says that being a change agent looks like “[situating] yourself in and [thinking] about the community you are living in.” However, Moreno maintained that the volunteer truly acts as a change agent after returning from abroad. She explained how the VOLPA alumni enact change by saying:

Buildings in Andalucia, Spain

When they return to Spain, that is when they are acting as agents for change. Why? Because the experience changes the life of the volunteer, but also the lives of the people around them, such as friends and family. When the volunteers return, the program evaluations show that they change their lifestyles and habits. They live a different way and look at their lives differently because the cultural encounter changes them.

Cristina Caravello, Entreculturas Volunteer
Cristina Caravello, Entreculturas Volunteer

VOLPA volunteers agree with this sentiment. In a 2013 evaluation of the program, 83 percent of surveyed alumni stated that their experience had impacted their lifestyle. Cristina Caravello, believes that the experience contributed to her own personal change. Commenting on her time in Kenya, she explained that “The experience of living in Africa does not let you remain indifferent.” She describes the experience as life-changing and one that allowed her to personally connect with another reality.

After the experience, volunteers continue to engage with Entreculturas through reflection and volunteer opportunities. Caravello, who returned from Kenya months prior to participation in the study, stated that the post-volunteering guidance offered her a way to reflect on her experience.

María Cristóbal, Entreculturas Volunteer
María Cristóbal, Entreculturas Volunteer

While Entreculturas engages in volunteer work that drives social change, the programming also benefits Entreculturas itself. Entreculturas sees both of these programs as a way to expand and strengthen its volunteer base within Spain. In the case of Experiencia Sur, existing volunteers have the chance to see how their administrative work, for example in grant proposal writing or staff training, is connected to the greater mission of Entreculturas and Fe y Alegría. María Cristóbal, an Entreculturas volunteer who took a similar trip to see Fe y Alegría schools in Latin America, said that she returned to her volunteer role at Entreculturas with renewed motivation. VOLPA participants also return to Spain with an increased interest in Entreculturas’ mission. Many even go on to continue volunteering or even working for Entreculturas. Caravello explains that she continues to engage with Entreculturas following her VOLPA experience because she was able to see firsthand the respect and intentionality with which Entreculturas works in the Global South; she had the opportunity to compare Entreculturas’ operations with those of other nonprofits, and chose to stay with Entreculturas because it best aligns with her personal beliefs about nonprofit work.

Beyond generating an increased commitment to the mission, the international volunteer opportunities have another tangible result: strengthened financing requests. When volunteers and staff travel abroad, they can see the efficacy of Entreculturas’ investment in Fe y Alegría schools, among other sites. In fact, Experiencia Sur alumni often play an essential role in Entreculturas’ funding requests to organizations in Spain. Vazquez Ponzone describes this process as a way for volunteers to give a testimonial for how Entreculturas uses its resources effectively. Overall, the international volunteer experience has been designed to provide many benefits to the participant and the organization.

Youth Engagement

Another key aspect of Entreculturas’ work is youth engagement. This includes several different programs involving youth across Spain as well as in other countries. These programs are both formal and informal in nature, meaning that they take place within the structure of a school day and as extracurricular offerings, respectively.

Jessica García, Director of Informal Education at Entreculturas.
Jessica García, Director of Informal Education at Entreculturas.

For the most part, Entreculturas' youth education work is not blatantly Jesuit or religious in nature. The fact that the organization runs programming in public and secular schools means that their work has to be more open in order to be accepted in these communities. Jesuit values guide the creation and implementation of programs, but they do not teach religious themes. Jessica García, Director of Informal Education at Entreculturas, explains how Jesuit identity plays a role in a program she oversees:

In the Youth Solidarity Network program, the entire pedagogy is based on Ignatian thought. It is the base of our entire methodology. To be fair, it isn’t always explicitly stated in our programming [...] Although Ignatian principles and popular education guide everything that we do, it’s not so obvious. Entreculturas views their youth work in social justice and global citizenship, while not outright religious, as a way to promote their Jesuit values. They may not use religious themes in these programs, but this is in an effort to appeal to more people.

Entreculturas views their youth work in social justice and global citizenship, while not outright religious, as a way to promote their Jesuit values. They may not use religious themes in these programs, but this is in an effort to appeal to more people.

"Entreculturas does not limit social justice or global citizenship to being just Jesuit or Catholic values, but rather they use a more open framework to promote these ideals as universal human values."

Entreculturas does not limit social justice or global citizenship to being just Jesuit or Catholic values, but rather they use a more open framework to promote these ideals as universal human values.

Formal education work, housed under the Citizenship Department, is a nationwide effort to introduce important themes of global citizenship, justice, and human rights in the classroom. Entreculturas works with Jesuit schools, public schools, and private schools with other religious affiliations. Entreculturas engages school faculty to educate them on social justice issues and support them in integrating these lessons into the curriculum. Overall, the program incorporates themes of global citizenship and social justice into the students’ holistic education experience.

One of Entreculturas volunteers poses with schoolchildren

Entreculturas Statement on Global Citizenship Education: 'We all need to learn how to be citizens of the world. Developments at a global level can cause poverty, inequality and environmental degradation, and humanity’s greatest challenges require a conscious, committed and strong global citizenship. This is why children need to learn to participate in society as citizens of the world."

African children at a classroom

"Entreculturas, together with different educational communities in Spain, Africa and Latin America, promotes projects and offers resources for a transformative education.'"

Additionally, Entreculturas develops materials and programs that schools may utilize to execute justice-focused learning in and out of the classroom. For example, the Informal Education department has created a set of informative posters called "The World in Your Hands" that disseminate information about specific days such as World Peace Day and Children’s Rights Day. Another example is their “A World Through Play” program, which touches on the same messages using pedagogy of play and social interventions through theater. Entreculturas creates these materials and lesson plans and provides them to schools across Spain.

Another formal education initiative is EntrEscuelas, or “Between Schools.” EntrEscuelas is a program that connects classroom units of students and their teacher(s) in Spain with a classroom of similarly-aged students in another Fe y Alegría member country. The two groups of students connect virtually to work together on different projects and support each other’s efforts. The projects fall into three categories: youth leadership, a singular shared project between the two classrooms, and global service. One example of a recent EntrEscuelas effort is a classroom in Spain and another in Nicaragua simultaneously working on their own anti-bullying projects. Through the internet, the students were able to participate in and support each other’s campaigns from across the globe. Working in solidarity and learning about global citizenship together, students gained consciousness about the lives of others and cultivated empathy and cooperation.

Entreculturas engages in informal youth education through the Youth Solidarity Network (Red Solidaria de Jóvenes, or RSJ). RSJ is an extracurricular program for youth organized in schools throughout Spain. In each school, a designated teacher accompanies a small group of students to work on volunteer projects and awareness campaigns with the end goal of engaging young people on issues of solidarity and global citizenship. The program began 17 years ago, and there are currently around 2,200 participating students. RSJ has a robust network of chapters within Spain and throughout 20 other countries, mostly in the Global South.

Participating youth are able to organize and execute a variety of projects based on their social justice interests. Previous efforts have included recycling campaigns, solidarity concerts, social theater expositions, and food bank collections. Similar to EntrEscuelas, RSJ chapters have the opportunity to be linked to chapters in other countries. Through this connection, they can collaborate on projects and support each other’s efforts from afar. This provides students the opportunity to develop skills in solidarity and international collaboration as they learn about and work on social justice-related projects.

A recent evaluation of RSJ shows that students truly are learning from their participation. Students who took part in RSJ demonstrated a greater understanding of key program themes including gender-based violence, environmental concerns, and current events. However, RSJ is just as much about personal growth as it is about mastery of social justice concepts. Participants experienced improvement in social skills such as conflict resolution, teamwork, and democratic decision-making. These personal skills, combined with augmented knowledge of social justice topics, contribute to Entreculturas’ goal of creating conscious global citizens. Furthermore, effects of RSJ participation can be seen beyond the participating students and staff member; schools with an RSJ chapter report a stronger sense of community in the entire school population.

In an effort to expand RSJ’s reach to different populations in Spain, Entreculturas is currently piloting a new branch of the program. The program, called DecideCoexist, aims to establish RSJ chapters in at-risk communities with the hope of fostering social inclusion. Jessica García, director of informal education, explains that some chapters do exist in these communities but that Entreculturas seeks to be more intentional about their efforts to include marginalized populations.

This is a mandate for [Entreculturas], to be where others are not.

Entreculturas has several main reasons for engaging youth in their work. First of all, Entreculturas considers youth programming to be essential to their identity. García states that it is within the Fe y Alegría tradition to focus on youth education, and Entreculturas is not exempt. She also mentioned that there are not many similar opportunities for youth civic engagement in Spain. This gap is all the more reason for Entreculturas to provide those programs. She explains that “This is a mandate for [Entreculturas], to be where others are not.” Additionally, Entreculturas engages young people in social justice work in real time; students do not have to wait until they are adults to support important causes. Programs like EntrEscuelas and RSJ give students tangible opportunities to get involved in age-appropriate ways. Finally, Entreculturas believes that young people are more malleable and responsive to global citizenship education than adults. As such, civic education is an essential component of a holistic education that prepares students to be competent and compassionate adults.

Respectful International Relationships

Due to the international nature of their work, Entreculturas’ relationships with organizations and communities abroad are very important. Entreculturas values treating other Fe y Alegría chapters as partners instead of aid recipients, and the staff stresses the horizontal nature of the relationships. Entreculturas has several procedures in place to maintain these respectful and horizontal relationships.

While Entreculturas is responsible for a large portion of funding going to its partner organizations in the Global South, the organization values Fe y Alegría’s autonomy. Fe y Alegría chapters in Latin America independently decide their funding priorities and submit requests to Entreculturas. Then, Entreculturas leverages its connections in Spain to match requests to different ounces of financial support. Entreculturas does not dictate how Fe y Alegría uses its money but rather makes use of its staff to meet their needs. By providing financial assistance without setting priorities for other organizations, Entreculturas allows partner nonprofits in the Global South, such as Fe y Alegría, to maintain what Vélez describes as “functional autonomy.” Vélez says that the funding relationship between Entreculturas and Fe y Alegría is one that is “continuous, constant, and based on mutual respect.”

Belén Rodríguez, Director of Evaluation at Entreculturas.
Belén Rodríguez, Director of Evaluation at Entreculturas.

Entreculturas’ partners operate independently beyond financing. Schools and chapters in other countries conduct their own evaluations with the technical assistance of Entreculturas. This practice ensures that on-the-ground actors conduct evaluations instead of outside organizations without knowledge of the local community. All Fe y Alegría schools use the Continuous Evaluation System, which runs on a four-year cycle, to measure the educational quality in their classrooms. The horizontal relationship between Entreculturas and Fe y Alegría as partners in evaluation has not always been as strong as it is today. Belén Rodríguez, director of evaluation at Entreculturas, remembered a time when Fe y Alegría staff in the Global South were fearful of evaluations and saw them as opportunities for punishment rather than learning and growth. She now describes the current state of this evaluation relationship to be more collaborative:

I think that we’ve overcome this quite a bit. Now, it’s viewed more as a cooperative effort to learn about what we’re doing. There’s a better evaluation culture now. They will even reach out to us and ask for help in doing their own evaluations.

There is still, of course, some room to grow when it comes to Fe y Alegría conducting its own culturally-competent evaluations. Rodríguez explains that it is still difficult to find contracted evaluators from within Latin American communities, which is preferred because it supports the community being evaluated. Often, too few candidates apply, or their applications are not of the same technical quality as those from Spain. Difficulty finding in-country candidates can lead to poorer-quality research or difficulty connecting with communities to collect information. She believes that this challenge may be due to the still-developing a culture of evaluation in parts of Latin America, or that they do not have connections to existing qualified candidates. Nonetheless, this is an area that Entreculturas can focus on in order to further strengthen the autonomy of Fe y Alegría chapters.


They work under the assumption that all people can be involved in social justice work, and their variety of inclusive programming supports this belief.

Entreculturas approaches social justice education from several angles with the goal of creating global citizens. They work under the assumption that all people can be involved in social justice work, and their variety of inclusive programming supports this belief. Young people, international and domestic volunteers, and international Jesuit organizations are all involved in the mission of providing quality education for all on a global scale. The focus on respect, education, and Jesuit principles means that Entreculturas maintains strong horizontal relationships with its partners. The organization uses its resources to support international Jesuit organizations while simultaneously working to encourage social justice engagement in the Spanish population. Through these efforts, Entreculturas is taking steps towards a world that is more connected, compassionate, and educated.

The views expressed in this student research are those of the author(s) and not of the Berkley Center or Georgetown University.

Featured Person: Grace Koehl Person